Washington, Nov 9 (AP/UNB) — Hackers impersonating journalists tried to intercept the communications of a prominent Saudi opposition figure in Washington, The Associated Press has found.
One attempt involved the fabrication of a fake BBC secretary and an elaborate television interview request; the other involved the impersonation of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to deliver a malicious link.
Media rights defenders denounced the hacking effort, which they said would make it harder for genuine reporters to do their jobs.
"It's incredibly dangerous to employ this kind of tactic," said Elodie Vialle, who heads the technology desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. "The chilling effect is that people are deterred from speaking to journalists. In the end, it undermines the freedom of information."
The most involved masquerade took place in February of this year, when someone posing as a BBC journalist called "Tanya Stalin" emailed Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali AlAhmed inviting him to a live broadcast about Saudi Arabia. Stalin engaged with AlAhmed over several days, sending him a list of proposed topics and talking him through the logistics of his purported television appearance.
AlAhmed said he knew from the beginning that something was up.
For starters, Stalin said her position was "Secretary to the Editor In Chief," a title that didn't correspond to a job typically done by producers or bookers. Odder still, the message came over Gmail rather than from an official BBC address.
And then there was her eyebrow-raising last name.
"The Stalin business threw me off," AlAhmed said in a recent interview. "I asked my wife, who is Russian, and she said: 'No one has this name.'"
AlAhmed was right. The BBC said it wasn't aware of anyone called "Tanya Stalin" working for the broadcaster and that the title she claimed to hold did not formally exist. An Associated Press analysis of her messages suggests the interview request was a sloppily executed trap, an attempt to get AlAhmed to click a malicious link and break into his inbox.
AlAhmed believes Saudi Arabia is behind Stalin's emails, as well as dozens of other suspicious messages he has received over the past year. One November 2017 missive purportedly came from Khashoggi, whose killing last month on the grounds of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has refocused international attention on the brutality of the Arab kingdom's leadership.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return written questions from the AP.
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said the hackers' theft of Khashoggi's identity was "contemptible."
A researcher with internet watchdog Citizen Lab recently reviewed AlAhmed's emails and confirmed they were malicious — although he stopped short of drawing a link between the different messages or blaming anyone for the hacking campaign.
"This was a targeted operation designed to gain access to his accounts and private communications," said John Scott-Railton, whose group is based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. "This does appear to be closely linked to his political activities."
Some of the messages — like a prompt to install a "free security update" called "Ninja security" — were generic phishing messages of the type used by criminals and spies the world over. But many of the 40-odd malicious messages recovered from AlAhmed's inbox were closely attuned to current events in the Gulf.
Most troubling was a May 31 message dressed up to look like it came from an event photography service, complete with pictures of AlAhmed holding a microphone during a question and answer session featuring the Qatari foreign minister at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The photos, which appear to have been pulled off a publicly available video of the event, suggest that the hackers or someone working with them had been tracking AlAhmed's whereabouts closely.
"That email was really when I felt fear," said AlAhmed, who says his work is largely self-funded. "They are actually physically here. They're looking at me."
Scott-Railton said the persistence of the hackers — and the variety of different tactics they employed to try to pry open AlAhmed's inbox — pointed to a manpower-intensive effort to compromise the Saudi gadfly.
"Over an extended period of time, humans were tasked with getting into his computer and getting into his head," Scott-Railton said.
As a critic of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, AlAhmed has been a regular on Arabic and English-language cable news for more than a decade. He has long served Washington journalists as a source about the kingdom's problems, especially in relation to extremist propaganda in the country's school textbooks.
Saudi Arabia is a known practitioner of cyberespionage. The country was exposed as a customer of notorious Italian surveillance firm Hacking Team in 2015 and a mysterious Saudi investor has since taken a minority stake in the company, according to a Motherboard report published this year.
Recent reports by Citizen Lab and human rights group Amnesty International have also documented the use of Israeli-made spy software to break into the smartphones of Saudi human rights activists, including Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz, who was working with Khashoggi on several confidential projects before the columnist was killed.
Whoever is behind the bogus Tanya Stalin persona or the fake Jamal Khashoggi emails, the messages give an idea of how the always-fraught overlap between espionage and journalism has evolved in the internet age, with government-backed hackers routinely impersonating journalists or news organizations to hunt their prey. Even the FBI has impersonated reporters to hack its targets, at one point pretending to be an AP journalist to locate a bomb threat hoaxer's computer.
Scott-Railton explained that masquerading as a journalist was a perfect way of getting someone to lower their guard and click a link or open an attachment.
"It ticks all kinds of boxes," he said. "It explains messages out of the blue and as part of communications with journalists you'd expect to receive documents, like questions in advance."
The attempt to hack AlAhmed under Khashoggi's name involved a simple link sent by email , but the Tanya Stalin ruse was unusually involved.
The hackers created a fake LinkedIn profile with more than 500 connections to corroborate her identity and pass her off as a graduate of journalism schools at Columbia and Berkeley. The profile's picture consisted of a headshot of Souad Mekhennet, a real Washington Post journalist who writes about national security and the Middle East and has covered the aftermath of Khashoggi's death.
It's not clear why the hackers used Mekhennet's photo in the sham profile or whether they even tried particularly hard to make the "Tanya Stalin" persona credible. Stalin did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Neither did whoever was behind the fake Khashoggi email.
Baron, the Washington Post's top editor, said in his statement Wednesday that he condemned the use of Mekhennet's image and Khashoggi's name.
"To be clear, neither of these distinguished journalists had any involvement whatsoever in these despicable schemes," he said.
Beirut, Nov 8 (Xinhua/UNB) - Israeli forces installed on Thursday new monitoring devices and video cameras on the fence on the borders with Lebanon between Adayse hills and Fatima Gate, Elnashra, an online independent newspaper reported.
Israeli forces have been inspecting surveillance equipment regularly on the borders with Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes violated Lebanon's airspace the same day above Shabaa farms while conducting exploratory flights above Arqoub and Hasbaya.
Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said earlier that Israel has violated Lebanon's airspace, land and sea more than 1,500 times in the past eight months.
Tokyo, Nov 6 (AP/UNB) — Turkey's top diplomat on Tuesday criticized the U.S. resumption of sanctions on Iran as unilateral, not wise and dangerous, calling for a dialogue and engagement instead.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Tokyo for talks with Japanese leaders, told reporters that Turkey opposes sanctions because they don't achieve results.
"As a principle Turkey is against sanctions and we don't believe that any result can be achieved through sanctions," he said. "Cornering is not wise, isolating Iran is dangerous and punishing the Iranian people is not fair."
President Donald Trump's administration's resumption of sanctions on Iran took effect Monday.
Turkey is an U.S. ally and one of eight major importers of Iranian oil spared temporarily from immediate penalties.
Still, Turkey has to be frank with the U.S. about its opposition. The U.S. "unilateral" measure affects the world, including Turkey, one-third of whose gas imports come from Iran, he said, and urged Washington to find other reasonable solutions. "I think instead of sanctions, meaningful dialogue and engagement is much useful and this is our principle."
Cavusoglu also urged Saudi Arabia to fully cooperate in the investigation of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month, demanding the country locate his missing body and hand over suspected collaborators.
Turkey is determined to get to the bottom of the case and Saudi Arabia hasn't answered the key questions, he said. "We have to find out how it happened, who did it and who gave the instructions, and we also have to find the body of the journalist Khashoggi."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post that the order for the journalist killing came from the highest level of the Saudi government but not King Salman.
Erdogan knows the king well and is convinced he was not involved in the murder, Cavusoglu said. He added that other evidence not made public suggested the king was not involved.
Sanaa, Nov 5 (AP/UNB) — Fighting has escalated around Yemen's key port city of Hodeida, with more than 150 combatants killed over the weekend from both the rebel and government-backed sides, officials said Sunday.
Airstrikes and naval artillery pounded rebel positions around the Red Sea coastal city, where government backed-troops are launching a major ground assault to try to wrest it from dug-in rebels. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The rebels, known as Houthis, said they repelled the latest offensive on Hodeida, killing or wounding 215 troops, but did not provide a breakdown. They said they destroyed 20 armored vehicles over the past 24 hours.
Fierce fighting also erupted in the provinces of Bayda, to the south, and Saada, a Houthi stronghold in the north, they added.
The offensive came despite recent calls by the Trump administration for a cease-fire by late November.
Yemen has been at war since March 2015 when the Houthis occupied northern regions and forced the government into exile. Since then, a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition supporting the largely exiled government has blockaded the rebel-held north and waged a devastating air campaign, causing thousands of deaths. The U.S. has sold billions of dollars' worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and provides logistical and other support to the coalition.
The coalition accuses the Houthis of acting as Iran's proxy.
The war has led to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Three-quarters of Yemen's people require life-saving assistance, according to the U.N. Population Fund. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed and more than 8 million are at risk of starvation from a looming famine.
The regional director of the U.N. children's agency, Geert Cappelaere, said the warring sides in Yemen make it difficult to deliver and distribute humanitarian aid to the country.
He said the situation is a "living hell" for all Yemeni children, singling out the death last week of 7-year-old Amal Hussein who had suffered from severe malnutrition.
"Unfortunately, Amal is not the only Yemeni child suffering that fate," he told a news conference in Amman, Jordan. "Thirty thousand children in Yemen die every single year of malnutrition as one of the most important underlying causes. There is not one Amal — there are many thousands of Amals."
The Associated Press had photographed Amal — whose name means "hope" in Arabic — in August. A photograph of the emaciated child with a protruding rib cage and stick-like arms also appeared recently on the front page of The New York Times.
Medics say her death was the result of insufficient medical care as supplies dwindle and many people like Amal live far from treatment centers.
Mariam Ali, Amal's mother, told the AP on Sunday that she had been walking on foot under the rain for over an hour to reach a health center when her daughter died in the middle of the road lasts week.
"I collapsed and only woke up to find myself home surrounded by neighbors who wrapped me in a blanket while my husband took Amal away," Mariam said.
She has six children who have suffered bouts of vomiting and diarrhea but recovered, whereas while Amal was sick for four years before she passed away.
Damascus, Nov 4 (AP/UNB) — Syria said Sunday it will cooperate with new U.N. envoy Geir Pederson if he avoids the "methods" of his predecessor.
Pedersen succeeds Staffan de Misutra, who steps down this month after four years of peace efforts that led nowhere.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the pro-government daily Al-Watan that Syria would cooperate with Pederson if he commits to the country's territorial integrity and stops supporting "terrorists, as his predecessor did."
The government regularly refers to the opposition as "terrorists."
The conflict, now in its eighth year, has killed more than 400,000 people, displaced half of the country's population and left entire neighborhoods and towns in ruins. It has also drawn in international powers, with Russia and Iran backing the Syrian government and a U.S-led coalition and Turkey also sending in troops.
Beginning in July 2014, de Mistura convened several rounds of indirect peace talks between the government and the opposition, with little success. Russia started a separate process that resulted in local cease-fires but failed to kick-start a political process.
De Mistura's latest efforts focused on negotiating a joint government-opposition committee to draft a new Syrian constitution. The government largely rejected those efforts, saying they amounted to meddling in its internal affairs.
Pedersen previously served as U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon in 2007 and 2008, and was a member of Norway's team that negotiated the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.